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Youth culture is the way adolescents live, and the norms, values, and practices they share. Culture is the shared symbolic systems, and processes of maintaining and transforming those systems. Youth culture differs from the culture of older generations.
Elements of youth culture include beliefs, behaviors, styles, and interests. An emphasis on clothes, popular music, sports, vocabulary, and dating set adolescents apart from other age groups, giving them what many believe is a distinct culture of their own. Within youth culture, there are many distinct and constantly changing youth subcultures. These subcultures' norms, values, behaviors, and styles vary widely, and may differ from the general youth culture. Understanding what adolescents think and do is fundamental to understanding the relationship between structure and agency, social patterns and individual action.
There is a debate about whether or not youth culture exists. Some researchers argue that youth's values and morals are not distinct from those of their parents, which means that youth culture is not a separate culture. Just because people see the presence of what seems to be a youth culture today does not mean that this phenomenon extends to all generations of young people. Additionally, peer influence varies greatly between contexts and by sex, age, and social status, making a single "youth culture" difficult, if not impossible, to define.
Others argue that there are definite elements of youth society that constitute culture, and that these elements differ from those of their parents' culture. Janssen et al. have used the terror management theory (TMT) to argue for the existence of youth culture. TMT is a psychological concept that hypothesizes that culture originates from an attempt to cope with the knowledge of mortality. Society does this by adopting a worldview and developing self-esteem. Researchers test TMT by exposing people to reminders of their mortality. TMT is supported if being reminded of death causes people to cling more strongly to their worldview. Janssen et al. tested the following hypothesis: "If youth culture serves to help adolescents deal with problems of vulnerability and finiteness, then reminders of mortality should lead to increased allegiance to cultural practices and beliefs of the youth." Their results supported their hypothesis and the results of previous studies, suggesting that youth culture is, in fact, a culture.
Schwartz and Merten used the language of adolescents to argue for the presence of youth culture as distinct from the rest of society. Schwartz argued that high school students used their vocabulary to create meanings that are distinct to adolescents. Specifically, the adolescent status terminology (the words that adolescents use to describe hierarchical social statuses) contains qualities and attributes that are not present in adult status judgments. According to Schwartz, this reflects a difference in social structures and the way that adults and teens experience social reality. This difference indicates cultural differences between adolescents and adults, which supports the presence of a separate youth culture.
Throughout the 20th century, youths had a strong influence on both lifestyle and culture. The flappers and the Mods are two great examples of the impact of youth culture on society. The flappers were young women, confident about a prosperous future after World War I, and they became the symbol of effervescence. This liveliness was seen in her new attitude in life in which she openly drank, smoked, and many socialized with gangster type men. The fashionable dress at the time also reflected the flapper's new lifestyle. Hems were raised, waists dropped, and hair was cut into bobs. This not only created a look that was dramatically different from the corseted, structured dresses of previous generations, but it also created a new freedom that allowed the wearer to move in ways one was unable to before. This break from older values was also apparent in a new posture embraced by the flappers. Instead of an upright, corseted posture, they preferred "a 'lop-sided' stance characterized by 'sunken chests and round shoulders,' [which] suggested fatigue rather than beauty." The flappers exemplified how youth culture was influential in fashion and lifestyle.
Mods also are a great example of a youth culture movement inspiring a popular lifestyle. Similar to the flappers, they also emerged during a time of war and political and social troubles. They were a group of kids that stemmed from a group called the modernists. The Mods were young men and women who came from all classes, and they believed that their fashion choices "gave them entrée everywhere," and their fashion choices empowered them. The women's fashions were short and reflected an ideal, youthful body unforgiving to women with curves. They also cut their hair short, possibly a "homage to the flappers of the 1920's." The Mod style and embrace of modern technology spread from the UK overseas to America as well as other countries, proving it to be an extremely influential youth culture movement.
The presence of youth culture is a relatively recent historical phenomenon. There are several dominant theories about the emergence of youth culture in the 20th century. These include theories about the historical, economic, and psychological influences on the presence of youth culture. One historical theory credits the emergence of youth culture to the beginning of compulsory schooling. James Coleman argues that age segregation is the root of a separate youth culture. Before compulsory schooling, many children and adolescents interacted primarily with adults. In contrast, modern children associate extensively with others their own age. These interactions allow adolescents to develop shared experiences and meanings, which are the root of youth culture.
Another theory posits that some types of cultures facilitate the development of youth culture, while others do not. The basis of this distinction is the presence of universalistic or particularistic norms. Particularistic norms are guidelines for behavior that vary from one individual to another. In contrast, universalistic norms apply to all members of a society. Universalistic norms are more likely to be found in industrialized societies. Modernization in the last century or so has encouraged universalistic norms, since interaction in modern societies makes it necessary for everyone to learn the same set of norms. Modernization and universalistic norms have encouraged the growth of youth culture. The need for universalistic norms has made it impractical for young people's socialization to come primarily from immediate family members, which would lead to significant variation in the norms that are communicated. Therefore, many societies use age grouping, such as in schools, to educate their children on societies' norms and prepare them for adulthood. Youth culture is a byproduct of this tactic. Because children spend so much time together and learn the same things as the rest of their age group, they develop their own culture.
Psychological theorists have noted the role of youth culture in identity development. Youth culture may be a means of achieving identity during a time when one's role in life is not always clear. Erik Erikson theorized that the major psychological conflict of adolescence is identity versus role confusion. The goal of this stage of life is to answer the question, "Who am I?" This can be difficult in many societies in which adolescents are simultaneously expected to behave like children and take on adult roles. Some psychologists have theorized that the formation of youth culture is an attempt to adopt an identity that reconciles these two conflicting expectations.
For example, Parsons (1951) posited that adolescence is a time when young people are transitioning from reliance on parents to autonomy. In this transitory state, dependence on the peer group serves as a stand-in for parents. Burlingame restated this hypothesis in 1970. He wrote that adolescents replace parents with the peer group, and that this reliance on the peer group diminishes as youth enter adulthood and take on adult roles.
Fasick relates youth culture as a method of identity development to the simultaneous elongation of childhood and need for independence that occurs in adolescence. According to Fasick, adolescents face contradictory pulls from society. On one hand, compulsory schooling keeps them socially and economically dependent on their parents. On the other hand, young people need to achieve some sort of independence in order to participate in the market economy of modern society. As a means of coping with these contrasting aspects of adolescence, youth create independence through behavior--specifically, through the leisure-oriented activities that are done with peers.
For decades, adults have worried that youth subcultures were the root of moral degradation and changing values in younger generations. Researchers have characterized youth culture as embodying values that are "in conflict with those of the adult world". Common concerns about youth culture include a perceived lack of interest in education, involvement in risky behaviors like substance use and sexual activity, and engaging extensively in leisure activities. These perceptions have led many adults to believe that adolescents hold different values than older generations and to perceive youth culture as an attack on the morals of current society. These worries have prompted the creation of parenting websites such as theyouthculturereport.com and the Center for Parent Youth Understanding (cpyu.org), whose goal is to preserve the values of older generations in young people.
Despite the attitudes of many adults, there is not a consensus among researchers about whether youth subcultures hold different beliefs than adults do. Some researchers have noted the simultaneous rise in age segregation and adolescent adjustment problems such as suicide, delinquency, and premarital pregnancy. Perhaps the increased prevalence of age segregation contributed to the problems of modern youth, and these problems represent a difference in values. However, most evidence suggests that these youth problems are not a reflection of different morals held by younger generations. Multiple studies have found that most adolescents hold views that are similar to their parents. One study challenged the theory that adolescent cohorts have distanced themselves from their parents by finding that between 1976 and 1982, a time when rates of adolescent problems increased, adolescents became less peer-oriented. A second study's finding that adolescents' values were more similar to their parents' in the 1980s than they were in the 1960s and '70s echoes Sebald's findings. Another study did find differences between adolescents' and parents' attitudes, but found that the differences were in the degree of belief, not in the attitude itself.
There may also be pluralistic ignorance on the part of youth regarding how their attitudes compare to peers and parents. A study by Lerner et al. asked college students to compare their attitudes on a number of issues to the attitudes of their peers and parents. Most students rated their attitudes as falling somewhere between their parents' more conservative attitudes and their peers' more liberal attitudes. The authors suggested that the reason for this is that the students perceived their friends as more liberal than they really were.
If adolescents' values are similar to their parents', this raises the question of why adults insist that adolescents inhabit a separate world with different values. One reason may be that the similarities between adolescent and adult values are relatively invisible compared to the differences between these two groups. The way young people dress, the music they listen to, and their language are often more apparent than the values they hold. This may lead adults to overemphasize the differences between youth and other age groups.
Adults may also falsely believe that youth's assertion of independence in exterior aspects of their life represents a manifestation of a different value system. In reality, sports, language, music, clothing and dating tend to be superficial ways of expressing autonomy--they can be adopted without compromising one's beliefs or values. Of course, there are some areas in which adolescents' assertion of autonomy can cause long-term consequences. These include behaviors involving substance use and sexual activity.
The impact of youth culture on deviance and sexual behavior is debatable. Drinking alcohol is normative for adolescents in the United States, with more than 70% of high school students reporting ever having had a drink. Similarly, about 2/3 of teenagers have engaged in sexual intercourse by the time they leave high school. As drinking and having sex may be common in adolescence, many researchers include them as aspects of youth culture. While engaging in these activities can have harmful consequences, the majority of adolescents who engage in these risky behaviors do not suffer long-term consequences. The possibilities of addiction, pregnancy, incarceration, and other negative outcomes are some potentially negative effects of participation in youth culture. Research demonstrates that many factors may influence youth to engage in high-risk behaviors, including "a lack of stable role models, heightened family stresses, lowered levels of family investment, weakened emotional bonds between parents and their children, lowered levels of social capital and social control, and a lack of hope in ones future".
However, teen culture may also have benefits for the adolescent. Peer influence can have a positive effect on adolescents' well-being. For example, most teens report that their friends pressure them not to use drugs or engage in sexual activity.
Young people can be a powerful force in precipitating change in society. Youth-led revolutions in the 20th and 21st centuries attest to this fact. Organizations of young people, which were often based on a student identity, were crucial to the Civil Rights Movement. These include organizations such as the Southern Student Organizing Committee, Students for a Democratic Society and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, whose role in sit-ins, protests, and other activities of the Civil Rights Movement were crucial to its success. The Freedom Summer relied heavily on college students; hundreds of students engaged in registering African Americans to vote, teaching in "Freedom Schools", and organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
The American protests in the Vietnam War were also student-driven. Many college campuses were buzzing during the war with protests, sit-ins, and demonstrations. Organizations such as the Young Americans for Freedom, the Student Libertarian Movement, and the Student Peace Union were based on youth status and contributed to participation in anti-war activities. Some scholars have claimed that the activism of youth during the Vietnam War was symbolic of a youth culture whose values were against those of mainstream American culture.
More recently, the Arab Spring has drawn attention because of the role young people have played in demonstrations and protests. The activities of the movement have been initiated primarily by young people, often college students who are unsatisfied with the opportunities afforded to them in the current political climate. The participation of young people has been so crucial that it led TIME magazine to include several youth members of the movement in its 2011 list of 100 most influential people. Additionally, the movement has relied heavily on social media (which can be considered an aspect of youth culture) to schedule, coordinate, and publicize events.
Some scholars have studied the trends that accompany social unrest, and have suggested ties between youth and revolt. Most notable is Gunnar Heinsohn's theory of the youth bulge. According to this theory, an especially large population of young people, especially males, is associated with social unrest, war, and terrorism. The rationale that Heinsohn gives is that these population trends leave many people unable to find prestigious places in society, so they turn their attention to creating change in society.